Along The Clay Road

Trip Start Jul 11, 2009
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Trip End Jul 25, 2009


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Flag of France  , Nord-Pas-de-Calais,
Saturday, July 18, 2009

The landscape is covered with corn fields and wheat crops and sugar beets, and it is strikingly familiar to the part of southern Ontario where I live. The lives that were lost here in WW I are calling to us; as our bus rolls along, and despite many stops at cemeteries and battle fields, I know I, and I suspect all the others too, feel that we would need months if not years to pay proper homage to the fallen in this area ...you see there are cemeteries within view at almost every turn...the tidy brick walls surrounding them help to keep them looking sharp like a well drilled, fit and polished private, while the straight and tall sword of sacrfice is a beacon calling to us to stop by. As we roll along the Normandy country side, the enormity of their sacrifice sinks into me.

Today we are heading off to Quesnel Memorial, Bourlon Wood and the Canal du Nord with possible stops at Caix Military and German cemeteries, Warvillers and Mehanricourt Cememtery, the resting place of P/P Andrew Mynarski, VC, but our tour guide John Goheen seems open to possibilities and manages to start the day by getting us very close to the final resting place of William Norton whose name is on the cenotaph at H H Knoll Park in Port Colborne. I had hoped to see this grave yesterday when we visited what I thought was "The" Sunken Road Cemetery, but as it turns out there are many sunken roads and many sunken road cemeteries. Some further research revealed to me that Norton's grave is located at the Sunken Road Cemetery, Contalmaison. Contalmaison is a village in the Somme, 6 km east-north-east of Albert. The Sunken Road from which the cemetery was named is part of the Contalmaison-Pozieres road and the cemetery lies a little east of the road.

It was an overcast day with a warm drizzly rain falling gently as our coach driver bravely maneuvered down a narrow, over grown clay road to within 1 or 2 kms of the obscure cemetery. This was as far as the bus could go. We could not see it but were told that up the road a ways was our objective... would we like to run up the road quickly while others waited for us on the bus? Without hesitation, my husband and I shouted "yes" and within seconds, fellow pilgrims were scrambling up and following us as we ran the clay road. It was strangely similar to the clay roads that cut through corn and soya bean fields surrounding Port Colborne and I was back home for a minute thinking of Snider Road which runs along my farm. The slippery, gummy clay under foot and the soft warm rain caressing my face felt like home and I felt very close to William Norton as I ran to "meet" him. I hoped that this peaceful setting was a comfort to his soul as I imagined the horror of his last days alive. To this day there is evidence of the enormity and severity of his war time terror. The rain, which had been falling all night, was washing away dust to reveal shards of blasted (formerly rounded glacial till) stones, still sharp from the explosions that churned this clay in 1916. Along the roadside were the now familiar, ever present (but smaller and sparser than I expected) poppies ... their striking red a reminder of blood shed. Finally, up and around a bend in the road we can see that there is not just one cemetery as expected, but two cemeteries, one on either side of the road. The one on the left is larger. Joe runs ahead to see if he can find our Port boy there on the west side first and as I expected, Norton wasn't there. Then over to the east side...and a shout out..."found him; here he is!" How strange is it that this Port boy is destined to spend perpetuity with his remains buried in what seems at a glance one cemetery cleaved in two by a clay road one side on the west and the other on the east, just as his home town is divided in two by The Welland Canal...two worlds ... east side and west side Port Colborne. I wondered if Will was a west side boy and struggling with being buried on "the east side." It didn't matter. They are all God's boys now.

The sun made a valiant attempt to shine and soon its light began to cheer. After a brief visit so as not to keep the others waiting we bid William Norton "adieu" and headed back down the road to the bus. As we rounded the bend and the bus came into view, we could see a small group of fellow pilgrims milling around a small Canada flag planted oddly but deliberately in the middle of the road. As I approached the group I sensed a buzz in the air. They had found a mortar shell slightly exposed and weather beaten, a relic of the battle that took William Norton's life. There was a strange excitement amongst the pilgrims and they were not in a hurry to board the bus. They were milling around looking for more evidence. Shrapnel balls, shards of medal, blasted pieces of rock were everywhere. We were face to face with history.


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